Release Date: Sep 4, 2015
Record label: Joyful Noise
Genre(s): Pop/Rock, Alternative/Indie Rock
In 1989, 23-year-old Lou Barlow was making homemade recordings in his living room during his downtime from playing bass in Dinosaur Jr. 26 years later, it's remarkable how little has changed -- Barlow is once again playing bass in the reunited Dinosaur Jr., and in his spare time, he's pursuing his solo career. 2015's Brace the Wave finds Barlow recording a new set of songs primarily in a makeshift studio located in someone's living room, with Barlow handling his various instruments all by himself (on "C + E," you even get to hear him clicking the recorder on and off).
Thurston Moore once told me in a magazine interview while discussing the pivotal figures of '90s indie rock that "Lou Barlow essentially invented lo-fi." His comment might not be literally true (Guided by Voices, Daniel Johnston, and countless others toyed with a similar level of fidelity), but there was something about the way Barlow made hiss and mistakes synonymous with his personality that made him special. It was part and parcel with the beautiful-loser tag he cultivated throughout his solo work. He wasn't espousing any discernible ideology, except maybe an inclination to find beauty in rough edges, and if to not self-consciously fuck up his work, at very least to accentuate its ugliness at moments.
Cobain-era teens are now parents, sporting wrinkles and receding hairlines; mortgages and 529 plans are their new reality. Those adults who have remained musically inclined are more likely to talk to their doctor about myriad maladies than smash their head on a punk rock. Thank goodness Lou Barlow has returned to soundtrack the onset of middle age life.
Lou Barlow’s working methods, usually favouring lo-fi recording techniques (a couple of songs here are bolstered by nostalgic tape hiss), sometimes lead him to be unfairly caricatured as lazy, slack or unsophisticated. In fairness, it has sometimes been a stereotype he has courted himself. The Sentridoh project aimed at unleashing his every half baked demo, and even at this mature stage of his career, there’s a song called Lazy.
Barlow's 2005 solo debut (?!) and its excellent 2009 follow-up were sort of head-scratchers. They were good listens (I think Goodnight Unknown in particular holds up to closer scrutiny), but essentially none of the tracks would have been out of place on one of the Dinosaur Jr. reunion records or under the Sebadoh banner. .
When I interviewed Lou Barlow a few years ago, he said something that struck me. It was in regards to his candid songwriting, which often leaves the heart bare and exposed. He winced at the word “confessional.” “The point of view of those songs is not, ‘I’m in Hell, and here I am,’” Barlow said. “The songs are about making a nice set of words about something that happened to me that I find reassuring.” Barlow writes music to make sense of the things that happen to him, whether it be his dismissal from Dinosaur Jr.
As the frontman of Sebadoh, Lou Barlow could often come across as something of a wounded hero, with his voice defensive yet defiant. On his first solo album in six years that tricky balance of power and powerlessness remains, yet this time around he’s the sole musician, playing a myriad of different acoustic instruments and recording the entire set in the comfort of his own home. Brace The Wave isn’t a folk album, despite Barlow’s claims.
Strumming a ukelele and straining through the static, a young Lou Barlow set the tone for his hushed and introspective solo career with a song tacked onto the end of Dinosaur Jr. ‘s iconic fuzz-monster You’re Living All Over Me. “Poledo” closes with a sentence fragment that feels like a tossed-off mission statement: from then on he was gonna “tell you about everything.
Lou BarlowBrace the Wave(Joyful Noise)3 out of 5 stars It would take someone days if not weeks to sort out and chart the extensive and twisted musical career of Lou Barlow. From his first band Deep Wound in 1983 to his work with Dinosaur, Dinosaur Jr., Sebadoh, the Folk Implosion and various solo projects under his own name and assumed ones, his catalog of lo-fi cassettes, one off singles, EPs and albums is so sprawling, erratic and confusing, it’s likely he can’t keep track of it himself. Through it all, he’s pretty much adhered to a DIY, almost primal home brewed aesthetic that, like his material, was hit and miss.
You don’t need to be especially well-versed in the ins and outs of Lou Barlow’s three-plus decades in music to know that he is not a man unduly concerned with refinement or polish. Sebadoh are the very epitome of rough-around-the-edges lo-fi, burying melody and - often - poignancy behind layer upon layer of thick scuzz. Dinosaur Jr., too, of whom Barlow has been a key member during their most successful periods, are hardly the slickest operators in town, with reverb and sheer volume long established as the most effective weapons in their arsenal.
2015 marks the 30th anniversary of the release of Dinosaur Jr’s debut album, Dinosaur, the neglected older sibling of the band’s most essential trilogy of albums. That in itself is a blandly unremarkablefact, but it is one that is thrown into some kind of clarity when listening to the latest works of Dinosaur Jr’s chief creative talents. The controversy that has dogged the on-again, off-again relationship of J Mascis and Lou Barlow down the years may well have had its upsides.
Recorded in just six days and boasting a relative simplicity and an arrangement largely limited to Barlow’s voice and accompanying acoustic guitar, Brace The Wave is all about honesty. This being Lou Barlow though, there are layers of overdub and guitar fuzz, so the honesty needs to be pried out of the mess every now and then. That mess is understandable and necessary, as Brace The Wave feels connected to the dissolution of Barlow’s 25-year marriage.